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Retreat Reflection on Silence

It has been a while since I last wrote, but time is now my own again! Yesterday, I was copying some retreat notes into another book and remembered an experience I wanted to share.

At a retreat last year, I was meditating on Zephaniah 3:14-20. One line in verse 17 was translated as “He will renew you in his love.” This translation is based, not on the Hebrew, but later translations. The Hebrew text reads, “He will be silent in his love.” While “renew you” fits the context better, “be silent” resonated with me. I was, after all on a largely silent retreat. This was my reflection:

“Pat and I have loved each other for well over fifty years. That love has often been expressed in laughter and exuberance. But it has also been expressed in silence–holding hands on the beach, sitting together on the porch in the mountains. Sometimes God’s love is like that. Or better, our love is like that–God and me. I can sit in silence and know the silence of God with me as a love that words fail to express. I like exuberance and singing, but I also enjoy just sitting in silence with my loving God.”

Where love is present
Silence can be beautiful:
Calm moon-lit waters



Christmas Means Love

This website is about pathways to God. Perhaps the straightest way is the way of love. And that brings me to Joan Osborne. One of my favorite Christmas songs is her singing “Christmas Means Love”.

She sings about the birth of Christ bringing us the message of love. She affirms that Christmas should be a time to share joy and love with our neighbors. The love message of Christmas can compel us to help one another.

Then in the middle of the song, she has a talking part. There she speaks of her desire for one thing–to spend Christmas with the one she loves.

I believe that in our experiences of love with one another whether it is familial love or romantic love or compassionate love we are traveling the way of God. Along this way, every experience may brush up against the glory of the God of Love.

May your Christmas be filled with deepest and sweetest love. Now let’s listen to a bluesy Joan Osborne.

 

Silence and the Way of Taize

A few years ago, the University of Virginia conducted an experiment. Each participant was given a mild electric shock. They all said that they didn’t like it and would pay money never to experience it again.  Then each of them were put into rooms alone for up to 15 minutes with all distractions, e.g. cellphones, music access, reading material, removed. They did have a shock button. Within those 15 minutes, 66% of the males pushed the button and 25% of the females! I will let you wonder what that might say in terms of spirituality and gender. My point is that many people in the modern world seem allergic of silence. Silence, however, is important in all spiritual traditions.

I don’t remember when I first became aware of the Taize form of worship, but I have been a fan for many years. True confession though: I have never been to the French town of Taize where Brother Roger and his small band of Protestant brothers formed a religious community after World War II.

Taize worship emphasizes Scripture reading, silence, and simple choruses. Brother Roger was not a fan of long sermons! Many of the choruses come from passages of Scripture, mostly of the Gospels or the Psalms. Brother Roger emphasized singing a simple chorus multiple times in order for the song to move from the lips to the heart.

Apart from the music, the service revolves around Scripture reading and silence. The silence is, for many, an opportunity to meditate on the reading or perhaps to pray as the reading has moved you.

I have only found one church in Birmingham that has an occasional Taize service. The music was wonderful and the Scripture readings were meaningful. However, the periods of silence were hardly long enough to get settled. Perhaps they knew their congregation might have started looking for some shock buttons!

I encourage you, if you are not already familiar with Taize, to find some of its music and listen to it. It can be easily found on the Web and, if you are an oldie like me, you can buy some music cds. (I own ten!) Perhaps listening to and singing some of these choruses will put you in the mood to spend a few minutes of silence alone with your God.

Here is an example with Bless the Lord.  Sing along with it–let the words move from your lips to your heart.

Images from a Contemplative Retreat

It was still dark as I walked to the guest cafeteria. The Rosemary bush was waiting:

Early morning walk                                                                                                                              Caressing the Rosemary                                                                                                                        The day’s first blessing

Later walking to the chapel to chant with the monks and praise God another blessing from Nature:

The path to worship                                                                                                                              Covered in Honeysuckle                                                                                                                      Aroma of God

I have always been blessed to experience the beauty and glory of God in Nature. It was no different at Mepkin Abbey whose beautiful grounds boarding on Cooper River afforded ample opportunities for silent meditation.

In blessed silence                                                                                                                                    I heard the presence of God–                                                                                                              Music of Nature

I came to the retreat hoping to grow in love for God and acquiring more of the compassion of Jesus. One day I walked in a labyrinth marked off by wildflowers.

In the labyrinth                                                                                                                                      Unbidden a song arose:                                                                                                                        More love to Thee

In those seven grace-filled days, I also meditated on Scripture. With the psalmist, I learned to sing my own song, “All my life I will sing to you, my Jesus.” Over and over again as I read in the Gospels, I experienced the glad-hearted kindness of Jesus.

Blessed are the kind                                                                                                                              For they are children of God                                                                                                              Kindness is divine

I was loved by God on this retreat and I returned home with more love and compassion for others–at least for a time. The ordinary world often makes compassion difficult, doesn’t it? So, my growth in love and compassion is far from complete. But in that wonderful retreat perhaps I sprouted a new blossom or two.

Trust in God’s slow work                                                                                                                      Transformation takes ages                                                                                                                    For each one of us

Addendum:

  1. As always, as you are moved, you may share this with others.
  2. If you are interested in retreats you may check out this web site: http://www.theanchorage.org.

The Mystic Path: Dark Night of the Soul

Dark night of the soul

Waiting for the veil to lift

And new lights to see

Along this mystic path we have looked at four stages: awakening, purification, illumination, and union. In this format it looks like a fairly straightforward process. It is anything but! In actuality it looks more like a spiral, however, even that image may be misleading. In talking about the spiritual life, our language by necessity must include metaphor.

A spiritual experience that many who travel this path have undergone was called by John of the Cross, the dark night of the soul. Stated simply, in this experience, God is helping us to grow in love. We are learning to love God for God’s sake and not simply for the God’s blessings.

The dark night affects us in various ways. We may feel a loss of the presence of God. We may have an acute sense of our own imperfections. We may experience a kind of spiritual lassitude. Even our will power may seem diminished.

In the book of Job, Satan asserts that Job only serves God because God has blessed him. Take away those blessings, and he will turn away, so says Satan. (An aside: I believe the Book of Job is more parable than literal. After all, have you ever known anyone who argued back and forth in poetry!) In the end, Job endured, though not without a monumental struggle. And the light returned.

One of my favorite passages in the Hebrew scriptures is Habakkuk 3:17-18: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”

In the dark night, our desires are being cleansed. It is not pleasant. It is not easy to

endure. But endure it we must, if we are to grow in love for God.

The Mystic Path: Union with God

We have noted the experience of awakening that often is the first step along the path. This can be followed by purification or purgation in which we acknowledge our sins and attempt, with God’s grace, to overcome the dark traits of our personalities. Next can come illumination in which we experience the presence of God such that we begin to understand more and more about who God is and what God desires for us. The final stop along the mystic path is called union.

On sweet occasions

Goal of Christian devotion

Union with our God

As might be expected, this stage can only be described by metaphor and symbol. Some mystics compare it to a transformation, e.g. wood becoming flame in fire, or a drop of water becoming wine when immersed in a great sea of wine. And, St. Paul wrote about being conformed to the image of Christ–becoming like Christ. Deification is a word the Eastern Orthodox Church has used for centuries. We do not become equal with God, but they affirm that we acquire the divine nature. In 2nd Peter, we discover that we can “become participants of the divine nature” (1:4).

Another favorite image among the mystics is spiritual marriage. It is a union characterized by love. The Song of Solomon is a favorite book for these mystics. Human love becomes a metaphor for the loving union of a person and God.

However it was characterized, the mystics all have had a burning desire to experience the fullness of God. They desire this more than life itself. So, they seek after God, and by God’s grace, they can have moments of true union. Only in the life to come, can the union become more permanent.

Union with God in this life and the life to come is characterized by 5 qualities.

1) It is marked by a union of minds. The mystic begins to share God’s values, ideas, and wisdom. Because of this union, they often understand intuitively what God would have them do different situations.

2) It is marked by a union of hearts. The mystic begins to love what God loves. The true mystic, united with God, has compassion for all that God has made.

3) The third mark should go without saying, but it is often not clearly understood. If we share God’s values and love what God loves, we will desire union with one another. To be united with God, one must in one way or another, be immersed in the life of the people of God.

4) The fourth mark is joy. One of my favorite mystics, Richard Rolle compared the person united with God to a music pipe always playing joyful songs of love to Christ.

5) The fifth mark is peace. One of my favorite hymns expresses this well. It is “Like a River Glorious” by Frances Havergal:

Life a river glorious, is God’s perfect peace,

Over all victorious in its bright increase;

Perfect, yet it floweth fuller every day;

Perfect, yet it groweth deeper all the way.

Hidden in the hollow of God’s blessed hand,

Never foe can follow, never traitor stand.

Not a surge of worry, not a shade of care,

Nor a blast of hurry touch the spirit there.

Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest;

Finding as God promised, perfect peace and rest.

This is not the last thing I want to say about this beautiful mystic path, but perhaps that is enough for today. As always, if you find what I have written helpful, feel free to share it with others.

The Mystic Path: Illumination

Illumination:

Seeing God in all things

Desire is answered

Perhaps unsurprisingly the last post on “Purification” was the least read post of all that I have posted! Hopefully the title of “Illumination” will attract more readers. However, without the desire to be a better person reflected in the step of purification, the next rung of the ladder leading to illumination can hardly be climbed. One spiritual writer noted that a person cannot reach the top of the ladder without stepping on the first rung.

Perhaps to understand what the mystics meant by illumination we need to go back to the ground level where awakening occurs. Because of our awakening, a desire to draw near and unite with God is born within us. As the desire grows, more and more is revealed to us. The more that is revealed to us, the greater the desire grows. However, it is not as automatic as that makes it sound. I find that I often must pray for an increase in my flagging desire.

In this stage of mystic growth, we concentrate our will, intellect and feeling on God.  Good works or virtues are performed almost spontaneously. St. Paul might call this growing in the image of Christ. St. Peter named it acquiring the divine nature.

Evelyn Underhill noted that in this stage of illumination three elements may be found. The first, is a joyous apprehension of the Divine or God. The nearness of God is enjoyed. The second is experiencing an added significance and reality to all natural things. The Divine is seen in nature and/or in other persons. And third, a kind of spiritual energy is released that may result in visions, voices, etc.

One word of warning about the last one: visions and voices are never to be sought. If they come, they come. And if they come but do not increase a person’s humility and love, they do not come from God.

As always, if you find this post helpful, feel free to share it with others and encourage them, if they like it, to sign up to follow.

May God be more real to all of us this day.

 

 

 

The Mystic Path: Purification

Last time we considered the occurrence of awakening in the mystic path–that happening in our lives when we become awake to the divine or God’s presence all around us. Today’s topic is not as exciting, but I hope not to lose any readers!

According to the mystics once we are awakened to the glory of God, we can become aware of our own imperfections. The path to ultimate union with God leads through a period (or probably periods) of purification.

Some of our imperfections are caused by our environment. Another way to say that is that we are impacted by sin. On the other hand, some of our imperfections are the result of our own bad choices. Or, we commit sin, e.g. we nurture wrong desires or do wrong things.

Our imperfections may appear in a variety of forms. Not being able to distinguish right from wrong is an imperfection in our intellect. When we can’t seem to make a decision or stick to those resolutions we do make, this is an imperfection in our will. Regularly struggling with unhealthy feelings points to an imperfection in our emotional center.

I have largely avoided talking about ‘sin’ because the word has been wildly misused over the years. When I was a young person growing up in rural Alabama in the 50s and 60s, dancing was considered a sin in some circles! And going to the movies on a Sunday was a definite taboo.

Nevertheless, the word sin still has value when we consider the imperfections in our moral center. Jesus taught us to love one another, which means seeking the other person’s welbeing. When we fail to do that, we are imperfect or we are sinners.

Mystics have suggested a threefold way of purification that can help us along the path to union with God. First is contrition–a sense of sorrow for our imperfections or sins. Second is a full confession–acknowledging, at least to ourselves, that we are not perfect. Third is the resolve to change. Of course, for Christian mystics, all of this is done in the presence of God who is ready to forgive and to help us grow into the divine nature.

The Mystic Way: Awakening

The name of this blog site is Pathways to God. Today I want us to begin thinking about the Mystic Way. In the Christian context, three movements are usually affirmed: purification, illumination and union. However, two additional steps are sometimes mentioned. One may occur between illumination and union. It is traditionally called the Dark Night of the Soul. The other is prior to purification. It is awakening. And it is awakening that I want to think about today.

The experience of awakening can happen in at least two different ways. One is to experience the glory of God externally. Nicholas Hermann (popularly known as Brother Lawrence) saw a dead tree in winter and thinking about how it would come back to life, he was awakened to the greatness of God. It was life-changing. Men as different as St. Paul and Rulman Merswin saw a great light and they were never the same. Even Jesus heard a divine voice at his baptism and a ‘normal’ life was no longer a possibility.

The other way is inward. Richard Rolle felt a heat or warming in his heart. (I don’t think it was heat that Tums could ‘fix’!) Catherine of Genoa was struggling in a loveless marriage and perhaps with depression. She went to a priest for her normal Lenten confession, but wasn’t able to say anything. As she knelt, her heart seemed pierced by the love of God. In one moment she saw her own miserable state, but more importantly God’s boundless love. Both Rolle and Catherine became great affirmers in word and deed of a divine love that fills and overflows our hearts.

Awakening comes in different ways, but when it comes the person is never the same. The Divine becomes the ever present reality of their lives. They live for God and God’s will. They affirm the beauty and the love of God.

So, what can we do to be awakened? Perhaps nothing. It comes to irreligious and religious persons alike. We can’t make it happen. All I can suggest is to pay attention to life within and without. All life comes from God and perhaps if we pay attention, we are more likely to experience a moment of awakening that will last a lifetime.

Born to Rock–Gently

My mother told me that when I was a baby, I would often get in a crawling position in the bed and rock myself to sleep. And I’ve been rocking ever since. My band director in high school poked good-natured fun at me as I rocked back and forth in my chair playing the trumpet. Whenever I go into a room where several chairs are available, I always gravitate toward any rocker I can find.

Rocking is a gentle movement. It’s a gentle activity. And it seems to me that gentleness is a quality our world needs more of.

Father John-Julian wrote a poem entitled “Psalm 23”. The first two lines are perfect: “The unhesitating gentleness / of pure divinity.”* Reading those lines, I realized anew how gentleness lies at the heart of that psalm in the Bible. It is also characteristic of Jesus as he gently touched the sick and patiently taught the multitudes.

One of the things he taught is usually translated as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” I prefer to translate it as “Blessed are the gentle . . . ”

I think I have come to appreciate gentleness more and more over the years. I love to see gentle butterflies flitting from flower to flower. Yesterday I witnessed one bird gently feeding his mate. Sitting on my back deck (rocking in our swing, of course) I just enjoy watching the leaves on the trees move gently in the wind.

I am not naive. I know that there are violent images of God in the Bible and that Jesus too is pictured occasionally as responding in less than gentle ways. And violence is part of nature.

Nevertheless, I believe that if we are going to have an earth to inherit in the generations to come, we need now to begin practicing gentleness. And we can begin by simply noticing it all around us, affirming that it is announcing the presence of the divine. Such attention has the power change us; to make us more gentle.

Hopes truest measure:

The gentle kindness of God

Is more than enough

*Fr. John-Julian, “Psalm 23” in The Paraclete Poetry Anthology: Selected and New Poems, edited by Mark S. Burrows (Paraclete Press: Brewster, Massachusetts, 2016), 64.

As always, if this meandering blog moves you, please feel free to share it with others and encourage them to become followers too.